Some would regard taking on the editor's chair at Esquire as being handed a poisoned chalice. Others would see it as a once-in-a-lifetime challenge to carve out and expand a successful niche in the thinking men's magazine sector. Luckily, the magazine's new editor, Simon Tiffin, regards his mission as the latter and this week unveiled the first edition of the magazine that was entirely of his own making.
Tiffin, a nicely spoken chap who studied social anthropology at university, left the relative comfort of his deputy editor's chair at Harpers & Queen, to take over Esquire, following Peter Howarth's decision to quit. The ghost of Howarth will still sit close to Tiffin because he was the one who decided to take Esquire out of the tits-and-arse stable and opt for the moral high ground. Circulation fell by just over 40 per cent and now sits at over 68,000 copies a month.
But Tiffin is keen to lay to rest Howarth's ghost by reinvigorating the magazine and its circulation. "Obviously, I would hope to improve circulation," he states. "The magazine's design, content, contributors and direction have all been improved. Esquire has to be focused and I felt that maybe it lost that focus before. I have aimed the magazine at a more grown-up market - it's more of a mindset than a quantifiable age." And for those critics who said Howarth's original idea was too half-hearted in its approach, Tiffin says: "There's nothing half-arsed about it now."
Duncan Edwards, the managing director of The National Magazine Company, who appointed Tiffin, is confident he will pull off the task. "He had an absolutely clear feel of what he wanted to do with the magazine. He's a grown-up guy and it is not for children. It's for men between 25 and 55 who are likely to wear a suit to work."
Tiffin has simplified the magazine's structure and, he hopes, brought coherence to the title.
He describes the perfect Esquire reader as someone who "would definitely read a broadsheet and be a great niche channel watcher - E4 as well as BBC4. He would be more enquiring. He's smart, definitely in the AB category. He's someone you'd like to hang out with and won't disappear for a line of coke every five minutes."
Esquire has its admirers and detractors in the media community. One condemns it as: "Being a bit like the Jeremy Clarkson of men's magazines - all sports jacket and pressed denims. It's not sexy." Others, such as Sanjay Shabi, a MediaCom associate director, believe it has an important contribution to make: "Howarth did a good job of proving that there could be a clean-cut distinction between Esquire and the rest of the men's magazines." Shabi concedes, however, that Tiffin needs to tweak the title. "Maybe it's gone too much the other way - covers always sell magazines and if you are a red-blooded bloke there's nothing like having an attractive woman on the cover. I'd rather have that than a head shot of Tim Roth."
Tim McCloskey, a managing partner at OMD UK, is not convinced Esquire has found itself a unique market. "Over the past five or six years, we've heard all the arguments and seen the various products but, frankly, these men that Esquire are targeting may not have the time, interest or inclination to read a men's magazine," he says. He's also uncomfortable with the magazine's bulk sales, even if they are handed out to first-class passengers on BA.
"With bulking at 32 per cent, you have a big question mark over what value that provides to the advertiser."
With such a proliferation of media and newspapers stuffed full of features it is natural to question if men who want a bit of substance really need to get it from a magazine. Tiffin agrees that Esquire has tough competition but says: "With newspapers, you don't have the product and in-depth access that magazines have. With magazines, you get great photos, design, in-depth features and more variety."
There is no doubt that there is renewed interest in the older men's market.
There's Jack, published by James Brown's I Feel Good, the category leader GQ and the new title Word. Tiffin feels encouraged by this because he believes it proves that a market does exist for this more mature Esquire reader.
Dylan Jones, the editor of GQ and a former colleague of Tiffin's, describes Esquire's new editor as "a very nice man. Very good at headlines," but is not convinced that Tiffin can do any better than Howarth. "They're pushing the line that they have a more upmarket product than GQ - why, because it doesn't have a libido?"
Tiffin is adamant Esquire will retain its vitality. "My new Esquire is not going to be The Economist. It will still have libido. But it will not be a slave to pop culture or celebrity." If there is such a clear distinction between it and GQ, Jones snaps: "Why has he attempted to poach nine of my staff?"
THE TIFFIN FILE
1990: GQ, editorial assistant and junior sub-editor
1992: GQ, deputy chief sub-editor
1994: GQ, chief sub-editor
1996: GQ Active, deputy editor
1998: GQ Active, editor
2000: Harpers & Queen, deputy editor
2003: Esquire, editor